‘It feels normal:’ UMC Children’s Hospital celebrates 1 year with facility dog Sable

Published: Sep. 28, 2022 at 10:35 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 28, 2022 at 10:36 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - Sable the Golden Retriever is celebrating one year working as the facility dog at UMC Children’s Hospital.

Along with her service animal halter leash, her collar jingles as she trots, alerting each patient their favorite medical ‘dogtor’ is on the way.

Ashley Gilbreath says she’s become a staple at the hospital.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in the hospital with Eliseo without seeing Sable, like, ever,” Gilbreath said.

Sable models being still for patients, getting ready for a procedure, helps with physical therapy and provides comfort when families hear a tough diagnosis. Ashley Gilbreath’s son Eliseo was diagnosed with leukemia in February at 11 years old. Her family has been in and out of the hospital since.

“Being able to play with her, pet her, it feels safe, you know. For him, it feels normal. She kind of takes his mind away from, ‘I’m going through chemo right now’” she said.

Child Life Specialist Hannah Boyd is her handler, working 40 hours a week alongside her best friend.

“I like to say that Sable is magical. I don’t really know, there’s something about her that just makes patients feel comfortable and safe. Every day I get to witness that sacred connection between a hurting child and Sable and it never gets old,” Boyd said.

Sable has a ‘pen-paw program,’ writing back to patients who send her letters. She also helps motivate patients during mobility exercises.

“It’s a companion for them. It gives them a sense of control, like you know, ‘I don’t really want to walk, but yeah, I’ll walk Sable,’” Boyd said.

Gilbreath says having Sable there helps Eliseo feel like he can be a kid again. He’s in remission, but is considered high risk for relapse because of his age. Two and a half hours from their family, Gilbreath says Sable is part of the larger UMC family, who picks them up when things seem to be at their worst.

“That’s what they’re there for. They’re not just there to be the nurse and do the things, but they’re also there to be our backbone, because we can’t sometimes and that’s what they were for sure,” she said.

Boyd says facility dogs are changing the face of pediatric healthcare and in about five years having facility dogs like Sable will be the new standard.